Peter Ridsdale: The Return of the Man who Never Went Away
At a point when they’re being openly threatened with an independent regulator because it is generally considered that they are incapable of getting their own house in order, the decision of the EFL to appoint Peter Ridsale, of all people, to their board is certainly a bold move. As an organisation that has overseen the complete collapse of two of its member clubs in the last three years and is now widely derided by supporters, we might have expected them to be a little more circumspect, but in the insular world of professional football, the ideal candidate can often feel like the person you know best, regardless of their history.
In the case of Peter Ridsdale, there is certainly one of those. His arrival at Leeds United in the summer of 1997 coincided with a couple of fallow seasons following their surprise league title in 1992 and subsequent ups and downs. Ridsdale was certainly confident, and wasn’t afraid to make a rash promise or two. The club started to spend more heavily on players, and in 2000 finished in third place in the Premier League, qualifying them for the Champions League. The following season, they reached the semi-finals of that competition, before losing over two legs to Valencia.
All, however, was not necessarily running smoothly behind the scenes at Elland Road, though. Ridsdale took out a £60m loan against future gate receipts to fund even greater club spending. The repayments of this loan were dependent on the club consistently qualifying for the Champions League, and with the money being primarily spent on new players, it could be considered an extremely high-risk gamble, and Peter Ridsdale’s luck was about to run out.
From January to April 2001, a spectacular run of 11 wins and two draws had kept Leeds in touch with Arsenal and Liverpool, who were just above them in the Premier League. With three games of the season to play, though, they lost 2-1 at Arsenal, ending the season two points shy of Arsenal and one point shy of Liverpool, missing out on the Champions League. The club could just about swallow that loss, and on New Year’s Day 2002 they went top of the Premier League with a 3-0 win against Southampton. There followed, however, a run of just five wins from their next fifteen matches, and an eventual fifth placed finish.
This time, the wheels really did start to spin off. Their ability to meet their financial obligations had become completely dependent on regular Champions League football, and the club had now failed for two successive seasons. Rio Ferdinand, signed from £18m from West Ham a couple of years earlier in what was considered a flex of their refound power, was sold to Manchester United for £30m to try to balance the books. The row over it led to the end of David O’Leary’s time in charge of the club.
The party at Elland Road was emphatically over. By the start of 2003, rumours concerning Leeds’ financial position were pretty much common knowledge – there had been little serious analysis of how Leeds could afford all the money they were spending on players at the time – and a steady stream of players left the club, both in the summer of 2002 and the following transfer window. They finished the season in 15th place in the Premier League table, but Ridsdale had quit by this time. He left the club in March 2003. Leeds reported a British record loss of £49.5 million in October 2003. On top of their already existing £78 million debt, they owed a total of £127.5m.
He wasn’t out of the game for long, though. Barnsley had been swept into administration in October 2002, as the fallout from the ITV Digital collapse swept through the Football League like a tidal wave. Ridsdale arrived as the club exited it, but this close brush with the reaper didn’t seem to have put the club back on an even keel and by the time Ridsdale left, shortly before Christmas 2004, Gordon Shepherd, who has taken over from Ridsdale, his successor confirmed that the club required £1 million to see out the season and that their financial position was “less than comfortable”.
Two years later he was back, this time at Cardiff City. Appointed to replace Sam Hammam, Ridsdale oversaw the club’s move from Ninian Park to The Cardiff City Stadium, but by the time of his departure at the end of May 2010, the club was estimated to have between £10m and £30m of debt, and was facing a fifth winding up order over a £1.9m tax bill. The club was saved, but the financial accounts for year 2009 in August 2010 revealed that the club’s actual debt was £66 million. “I get constantly fed up with being used as a soft target and being labelled with issues that are either inaccurate or out of context”, said Ridsdale at the time.
Before the end of the year, though, he was back again, this time at Plymouth Argyle as an advisor to a club that was teetering on the brink of administration. Plymouth entered into administration the following March, and Ridsdale bought the club in the summer for a nominal sum. With the staff not having been paid for the previous ten months, Ridsdale offloaded the club to James Brent in October 2011. Just six weeks later, he was appointed the chairman of Preston North End.
For a serial football club chairman, though, the worst news possible was coming. On the 3rd October 2012, HMRC was announced that Peter Ridsdale would be disqualified from acting as a company director for seven and a half years. Following the collapse of his sporting agency in 2009 with £442,353 in tax owed, an inquiry found that Ridsdale had channelled payments from football clubs into his personal bank account instead of a company account. Ridsdale said at the time, “I am currently undertaking a role of Chairman of Football at Preston North End but am not a director nor at any time have I sought to be one”.
Some might consider that Ridsdale should have to resign his Preston position upon his disqualification, but he has continued there ever since in what has been described as an “advisory” role. We can only consider that no-one gave much thought to whether he might have been acting as a shadow director, but while eyebrows have been raised over the fact that someone can continue to act in a way that looked very much like that of a company director while being disqualified to do so will have to be chalked up as one of life’s little mysteries. Peter Ridsdale certainly does have a tendency to land on his feet.
What we know for certain is that at least for once he kept a low profile at Preston. The club was promoted into the Championship in 2015, but they’ve seldom threatened for a place in the Premier League since then, and this year marks the sixtieth anniversary of the last time the club played top flight football. And earlier this month Ridsdale was, surprise surprise, formally appointed as a director of Preston North End FC Ltd. Last week came the confirmation of his appointment with the EFL, though at the time of writing this doesn’t show with Companies House.
The point about every stage in Peter Ridsdale’s career since he arrived at Leeds United almost a quarter of a century ago is that there is always an asterisk. He was at Leeds when they reached third place in the Premier League and the semi-finals of both the UEFA Cup and the Champions League. But then there was the state he left them in. The club’s rapid slump to League One happened after his watch, but the seeds for it were sewn on it.
At Barnsley, he was part of the group that took the club out of administration, but left with the club’s financial position “less than comfortable”. He oversaw the move into The Cardiff City Stadium, but debts were again high when he left. At Plymouth, he maintained the club for a while to facilitate its eventual sale, but the club’s staff went ten months unpaid. And at Preston, there has been little push towards promotion of note, even though they were promoted six years ago. Always an asterisk.
But this isn’t a hit job on Peter Ridsdale. He clearly remains popular within the game, and it would be difficult to claim that someone who has been doing this for 24 years simply doesn’t know what he’s doing. That’s just facile. But that baggage is real, and it isn’t one isolated incident. Leeds United took the best part of two decades to recover from events initated by Peter Ridsdale’s recklessness. He was disqualified from acting as a company director for seven and a half years, yet was simply allowed to cary on doing what he did just by claiming to be a “Chairman of Football” or an “Advisor”, rather than a “Director”. Shadow directorships are an understood concept within company law, but Ridsdale doesn’t seem to have met the threshold.
And from the outside, all of that baggage makes his appointment with the EFL at this time look singularly baffling. Peter Ridsdale has a chapter almost to himself in a David Conn book. The club that he played a role in tanking was the highest profile – and longest-lasting – financial disaster in English football this of century, so far. You could stick a picture of his face on a flag for football’s financial incontinence and few would give a second look.
We don’t know how watered down the proposals of the fan-led review of football governance might end up being, but at present the tide doesn’t seem to be heading in favour of continuing light-touch regulation, and that case was hardly helped by the hare-brained Project Big Picture and European Super League concoctions, both of which sought to camouflage land grabs as ‘much-needed reform’. There has been considerable anger at the lack of punishment the English clubs involved received, and the voices for reform that benefits the whole game for once and not just those who already sit at its top table (or the top end of its top table) are louder than ever.
It’s as though we’re reaching a juncture at which we have to decide whether an entire football culture has to be driven for the benefit of a tiny number of clubs, or whether we wish to reclaim it as an industry which recognises and understands its community role, which is run in such a way as to protect vulnerable clubs from predatory businesspeople, and which promotes transparency and probity in its business dealings and management, a genuine sporting ethos, and an understanding of its social, cultural and community importance and a genuine desire to build upon it.
So yes, for the EFL to make this particular appointment at this particular time does feel strange, because there’s always an asterisk, and this asterisk also explains why he has been involved at five different clubs, rather than just one or two. But he also tends to land on his feet, so at the very least it is to be hoped that this time, he has learned the lessons of his own past.